Bernard Rudofsky: notes from a trip to the Orient

In 1959, the Viennese transplant to America anticipated some reflections on spontaneous architecture that would find fulfillment years later with the publication of Architecture without architects.

Originally published in Domus 357/August 1959

From every point of view, Barcelona and Bangkok have very little in common. The climate and topography of the two cities, the physiques and temperaments of their inhabitants could not be more different. And despite the leveling influence of Western civilization, even the works and objects, both Spanish and Siamese, have nothing in common. Especially the architecture. With one exception: Gaudí seems to create a multicolored bridge between East and West, in which he gives reign to his personal world of forms, as in the Casa Mila roof and Park Guell; his imagination is prodigiously oriental. It's as if his personal flying carpet transported him from the rigor of a Spanish city to a fantastic world of visual excitement.

The relationship between some of the Siamese temples and the tortured "excrescences" of Gaudí's buildings appears even in the minute details, such as the use of ceramic tiles, or rather fragments of broken pottery, broken glassware, all used with great freshness. But Gaudí's mosaics are flat and the compositions are a bit random, almost like patchwork rugs.
Interior views of the round Jantar Mantar buildings used to measure the revolutions of the sun, moon and stars. Gathered side by side on a lawn, these huge stone instruments have a beauty that is neither scenography nor sculpture.
Interior views of the round Jantar Mantar buildings used to measure the revolutions of the sun, moon and stars. Gathered side by side on a lawn, these huge stone instruments have a beauty that is neither scenography nor sculpture.
The Siamese technique is rather more delicate, more attentive, almost passionate. In Bangkok, the same plates and broken pots were transformed into polychrome sculptures, mosaics of flowers and blossoms on the steep walls of the temples—as bright and sensuous as the tropical fauna. (This technique, this "art of broken dishes," which still does not have a real name, could be called 'debri-ism' from the French débrisme and the German Scherbengestaltung ). Architecture untouched by practical considerations—architecture as an end in itself, "architecture for architecture"—is very rare today. The buildings presented in these pages seem to come the closest to this approach. Architecture as non-functional as architecture can be. Devoid of doors, windows and roofs—details that inevitably ruin the architect's best intentions. On second thought, they do not even have plans. And, needless to say, they do not have columns, moldings, profiles or ornaments. This is architecture only in the sense that is made of brick and stone, stuccoed and painted.
Delhi: The "architectural astronomical instruments" of Jantar Mantar built in the 18th century. In India, the methods of observation of the skies grew with the construction of these huge brick and stone instruments, whose enormous scale allowed observers to attain a high degree of accuracy in their measurements.
Delhi: The "architectural astronomical instruments" of Jantar Mantar built in the 18th century. In India, the methods of observation of the skies grew with the construction of these huge brick and stone instruments, whose enormous scale allowed observers to attain a high degree of accuracy in their measurements.
Logically speaking, these are not buildings but tools built on a massive scale to minimize error. They represent a complete observatory system clearly delineated on a lawn. In India, there are several of these astronomical instruments that were used to measure the revolutions of the sun, the moon, the stars. Those shown here, Jantar Mantar, are in Delhi and were built in the 18th century. It is likely that they have not been used for a long time, and one wonders how many people would still able use them. Although surpassed as tools, they are have astonishing precision. They bear witness to an era when heavenly space was not yet explored by mankind, when the missiles were pocket-sized and were launched only once a year to honor a saint.
There is no doubt that their non-utilitarian quality augments their indefinable charm. These walls contain only voids. The stairs lead to nowhere. The architecture plays with architecture.
Abstract forms and space of the Jantar Mantar architectural instruments.
Abstract forms and space of the Jantar Mantar architectural instruments.
There is no doubt that their non-utilitarian quality augments their indefinable charm. These walls contain only voids. The stairs lead to nowhere. The architecture plays with architecture. Yet there is a certain magic in this; these buildings contain a spell. They seem inhabited although they are just the opposite of ruins. There is something lunar about them even when the sun is at its highest. Labyrinths of the highest order, in which no one gets lost, where everything is as clear as the light of day. A midsummer's dream, so to speak.
Bernard Rudofsky

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